January 22, 2006
In New Orleans, Smaller May Mean Whiter
By JAMES DAO
MAYOR C. RAY NAGIN of New Orleans was greeted with yowls of protest last week when he declared that it was God's will for New Orleans to be a "chocolate" city. Whites shouted racism; tourist groups threatened to cancel bookings; even his friends rolled their eyes at Mr. Nagin's penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment.
But one group, the displaced black residents of New Orleans, might have welcomed Mr. Nagin's message. The city, nearly 70 percent African-American before Hurricane Katrina, had lost some of its largest black neighborhoods to the deluge, and many fear it will never be a predominantly black city again, as it has been since the 1970's.
Indeed, race has become a subtext for just about every contentious decision the city faces: where to put FEMA trailers; which neighborhoods to rebuild; how the troubled school system should be reorganized; when elections should be held.
Many blacks see threats to their political domination in reconstruction plans that do not give them what they once had. But many whites see an opportunity to restore a broken city they fled decades ago.
In the struggle to rebuild New Orleans, could blacks find that their place in it is that much smaller?
Perhaps, demographers said. By some estimates, 300,000 people were displaced by the flood, and it is widely believed that a large majority of them were black. Though the floodwaters destroyed white neighborhoods, they were particularly devastating to the historically black areas of New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward, former swampland known collectively as "the bowl."
"There is a legitimate fear on the part of some African-Americans that it is happening," said Elliott Stonecipher, a political pollster and demographer from Shreveport, La., referring to a permanent black depopulation of New Orleans. "I don't know of a place where this kind of demographic shift has ever occurred. It is a huge, huge shift."
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that New Orleans' black population has been extraordinarily rooted in the city, with many people tracing their ties to before the Civil War. Before Katrina, 88 percent of blacks in New Orleans were born in Louisiana. By comparison, just 57 percent of blacks in Atlanta were born in Georgia.
Such statistics lead Mr. Frey to believe that many displaced blacks will come home. "If the same thing happened to Las Vegas, you wouldn't have the same commitment," he said. But for many people, returning will depend on whether they see progress in reconstruction. "That's why it's important for the mayor to come up with a concrete plan for rebuilding," he said.
Paradoxically, it is a plan developed by the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back commission that is fueling concerns among some blacks that New Orleans will not emerge as a majority black city again. The commission's proposal, released two weeks ago, recommended a four-month moratorium on rebuilding in the most damaged neighborhoods to allow time for determining which should be left permanently fallow.
The proposal was greeted by a torrent of protest, led by the N.A.A.C.P. and former Mayor Marc H. Morial, a scion of one of the city's most powerful black families and president of the National Urban League.
For many blacks, the blueprint seemed to support a "smaller footprint" for the city, built mainly on higher ground. And in New Orleans, higher ground means more expensive ground, white ground, Mr. Stonecipher said.
"In the eyes of the African-Americans in New Orleans, when you say smaller footprint you are saying that inside the bowl will not be rebuilt," Mr. Stonecipher said.
Many political analysts said that the mayor's uncharacteristically impassioned speech about a "chocolate" city resulted from his recognition that his commission's proposal had infuriated many blacks.
Mr. Nagin, who is black and a Democrat, has never had strong political ties to the city's black political elite. A former Cox Communications executive, he won election with overwhelming support from white voters and business leaders, and maintained closer ties to President Bush and Louisiana Republican officials than to his own party leadership.
But he is facing re-election this year, and he cannot afford to lose too many black votes, political analysts said. Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Tulane University in New Orleans, said he believed that Mr. Nagin thought that "Chocolate City," the title of a song by Parliament, the pioneering funk band, "was a code word that would tap into getting African-American support."
Mr. Nagin is not the only politician whose fate could be determined by changes to New Orleans' population. The city has long been the backbone of Louisiana's Democratic Party, dominated by the Morial and Landrieu families. Black voter turnout there was crucial to United States Senator Mary L. Landrieu, the daughter of a former mayor of New Orleans, Moon Landrieu, in her narrow victories of 1996 and 2002.
For those reasons, some blacks see a political conspiracy in the proposals for a smaller New Orleans, analysts said. Fears about New Orleans becoming majority white have also made some black politicians wary of proposals to revamp New Orleans' schools and city government, which are widely viewed as corrupt, bloated and inefficient.
Advocates for overhauling the city government said such worries are misplaced, asserting that proposals to streamline it or fight corruption will help New Orleans win federal aid and lure back displaced residents who have witnessed better services in other cities.
"These are the types of things that have been talked about for a long time, but we just couldn't do them politically," said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan public policy group.
Though Mr. Nagin has apologized for his "chocolate" remarks, Mr. Stonecipher said they have injected some honesty into the debate over New Orleans' future, however inadvertently. A forthright discussion about race might ease tensions that are slowing reconstruction, he asserts.
"There is an absence of frankness that keeps us from having the discussion and moving on," Mr. Stonecipher said. "That's why everyone is scratching their heads saying, 'Why are we five months down the road and nothing is happening?' "